Science-- there's something for everyone

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Hem and haw to a better vocabulary

Or at least, to help your toddlers learn new vocabulary words. According to a study by Celeste Kidd and Richard Aslin of the University of Rochester and by Katherine White from the University of Waterloo, parents shouldn’t worry about the occasional um or er when talking to their toddlers. If anything, the practice actually helps the kids learn new words.

The researchers displayed a set of images to toddlers aged 18 to 30 months. Each pair of pictures contained one that was familiar to the child, such as a book or a ball. The other image was of a made-up object with an unfamiliar name like ‘dax’ or ‘gorp’. The children sat in a parent’s lap and listened to a recorded voice talk about the objects. Occasionally, the voice would stumble, saying things like, “Look at the, uh…”, whereas other times the voice was smooth and articulate.

Children over age two were almost 70% more likely to look at the unknown object when the voice stumbled. In other words, the brief verbal hesitation was priming the kids to learn something new. This was not the case for younger children, who had not yet learned to associate verbal stumbles with novel words.

Kidd warns against making too much of this result:

We’re not advocating that parents add disfluencies to their speech, but I think it’s nice for them to know that using these verbal pauses is okay—the ‘uhs’ and ‘ums’ are informative.